Comparing the 2010 and 2011 Steelers as They Head into the Playoffs

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 8: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts after throwing a touchdown pass to Antonio Brown #84 (not pictured) during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 14-3. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The team that began this season was largely composed of players that had played in the Super Bowl almost seven months earlier, or so it seemed. (To see just how many people that represents, check out this post.) The team that began the 2011 season has now changed quite a bit because of injuries and demotions. Nonetheless, there are an great many of the same people on the team, although they may not be at the same place on the depth chart.

And although the Steeler defense was again near the top of the league in many categories, those categories were in many cases quite different between the two seasons. Conversely, an offense that was supposed to achieve new benchmarks for the Steelers never quite lived up to its promise.

I thought that it would be interesting to compare the stats for the various units of the team and see whether it tells us what we've all been wondering this year, which is just who are the 2011 Steelers?

I decided to start with the underperforming offense. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there isn't much sense in looking at anyone but Ben. Although the receiving corps isn't quite the same group as last year, there are enough similarities that it shouldn't make very much difference.

The offensive line is, like last year, a tissue of woes, but performs pretty well on the rare occasions that the same group of players get any significant amount of game time. If you look at sacks, there's nothing to choose between them. Ben was sacked 32 times in 12 games in 2010, or 2.6666 sacks/game, and 40 in 15 games in 2011, which comes to, bizarrely, 2.6666 per game. (My engineer husband assures me that this is a coincidence rather than a sign of some sort : )

But the most telling stat is the fact that Charlie Batch was not sacked a single time during the St. Louis game. The St. Louis defense is admittedly not at the level of some of the other teams the Steelers faced this season, but this still confirms that Ben's style of play is responsible for a lot of his sacks.

There isn't much point in looking at the running back situation, either, as the scenario this year is quite different from last season's playoffs. It's hard to imagine that the loss of Mendenhall won't hurt the team, but stranger things have happened. Maybe Isaac Redman will finally be given permission to reveal a few of his superpowers. Maybe the new short kid will turn out to be a Ray Rice clone in disguise. Maybe John Clay was just messing with us, and really has 4.4 speed under that substantial exterior. It will sure be interesting, anyhow.

I would like to think that the tight ends are somewhat better than last year. (I would also like to think that I'm 28 years old and rich.) But thus far Weslye Saunders hasn't shown himself to be a massive upgrade from Matt Spaeth, although he may have the potential to be. David Johnson is his usual self. He'll throw a great block or be clutch in a short pass and we'll think that he's finally arrived, and then he does something boneheaded. Even Heath has had a few down moments, like his big fumble in the first Browns game. But this is not unprecedented. A huge fumble in the Saints game on Halloween of 2010 was the beginning of the end in that contest. Basically, he is still his reliable self, and everyone notices when he screws up, because he does it so seldom.

So let's have a look at the quarterback situation. In terms of backups, this year the #3 backup is Dennis Dixon rather than Byron Leftwich, but that's the only change. Byron Leftwich was injured and cut in 2010 during the preseason, but was resigned after Dixon was injured in Game 2. He played a few snaps during the final game of the regular season, and did not play in the postseason. He was injured during the 2011 preseason and put on IR.

Dennis Dixon was injured and place on IR during Week 2 of the 2010 season. In 2011 he has only dressed for two games, and has not played a single snap.

The primary backup is Charlie Batch. Batch played two complete games plus part of another in 2010 because of the Roethlisberger suspension and the Dixon injury. He played one complete game and a couple of snaps in 2011. Batch seems much the same as ever - competent and capable of managing a game but not likely to create a lot of offensive excitement.

The big news as always is Ben's state and Ben's stats. First, his state:

At the end of the 2010 regular season, Ben was dealing with two injuries, a broken bone in his right foot and a broken nose. The foot fracture was thought to be an aggravation of a prior injury. He incurred it in the game @ Buffalo on November 28th. I've never seen any information on when it actually happened, but I'm fairly certain it was at the end of a play when he was sacked. A couple of Bills linemen presumably decided to make sure he was actually down, and jumped upon his supine legs as if they were on a bouncy castle. The refs apparently found this to be charming, because they didn't bother to flag said linemen for the extracurricular activity.

A special oversized shoe with a supporting plate in it was rigged up so that he could play the next week in Baltimore. Haloti Ngata, inspired possibly by the antics of the Bills linemen, welcomed Ben to M & T Bank Stadium by breaking his nose. The ref in that game didn't find it charming so much as business as usual, or, as he told Ben, "He's just trying to play football." He wasn't flagged either.

Ben's nose was more or less patched together and taped, and he famously finished the game. He wore a visor during subsequent games, which occasionally impeded his visibility a bit but otherwise didn't seem to affect him adversely. The special shoe was worn throughout the playoffs, and after that first game appeared to have little effect on Ben's mobility or comfort.

This season has also featured two injuries, a fractured thumb and a high ankle sprain. The thumb was injured in the first Bengals game in mid-November. Other than causing Roethlisberger to wear a splint and glove, it doesn't seem to be affecting his playing to any significant extent.

The sprain, which was one of the more horrifying-looking things I've seen in a game, was diagnosed Grade 1. Obviously it is still affecting him a good deal. The big mystery at the moment is whether he did or did not re-injure it last week. He says he did, Tomlin says he didn't. Maybe this is just their way of keeping everybody guessing. More than one reporter has indicated that he was limping quite heavily around the locker room. (Ben, that is, not Tomlin.)

In retrospect Roethlisberger states that this season's sprain is far more problematic than the foot was last season. Whether he or Tomlin are more correct about the state of his ankle, he's clearly in worse shape going into this year's playoffs than he was last year. As such, it's a pity that he will have to play three games to make it to the Super Bowl, if such should be the fate of the 2011 Steelers. I expect there are one or two plays during the regular season that he would give a great deal to have back.

Now let's have a look at the numbers. All stats are from ProFootball Reference or NFL.com:

Season

# Games

Played

Re-

cord

Comp/Att

Comp %

Total

Yds

Y/A

Avg.

Y/G

TDs

INT

QB

Rating

2010 Regular Season

12

9-3

240/389

61.7%

3200

8.2

266.7

17

5

97

2010

Postseason

3

2-1

54/91

59.3%

622

6.8

207.3

4

4

76.4

2011 Regular

Season

15

11-4

324/513

63.2%

4077

7.9

271.8

21

14

90.1

Ben's numbers are down this year, although I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that the December games have been most of the reason. The rest of it would presumably be Game 1. Game 1 is, after all, the game in which he collected 3 of the 14 interceptions. (The 49ers game in December yielded 3 more.) The defense has gotten a lot of grief for the poor TO/TA ratio, but it doesn't help that Ben has collected 9 more interceptions than last season, as well as a bunch of fumbles. It's pretty hard to climb out of a hole if somebody is at the bottom digging it deeper.

His number look even worse in the 2010 post-season, but in reality he played very well in the Ravens game, reasonably well in the Super Bowl, and pretty abysmally in the Jets game, where he earned a 35.5 QB rating. This says a lot about how streaky he can be. Of course, it is hardly all Ben.

Some days the running backs contribute significantly to the game, and some days they must make Chuck Noll weep. Some days the receivers run their routes a bit less crisply, or conversely pick up some serious yardage after the catch, or fight for the ball. Some days the O line run blocks well, or gives Ben more time in the pocket, and some days the running backs can't get anywhere and Ben's uniform looks like a dog's breakfast. But if Ben's having a good day none of that seems to matter. If he's having a bad one it's tough sledding.

It's been said many times before, but this offense will go as Ben goes. If he manages to figure out how to play reasonably well on the bad ankle, this post-season begins to look a lot more promising. What's concerns me is that the injury seems to have interfered to a greater or lesser extent with Ben's kinesthetic sense. This isn't too surprising. After all, if he can't step properly into a throw as he's accustomed to doing, the ball is going to do some unpredictable things.

So who are the 2011 Steelers offensively? Basically, they are who Ben is on any given day.

I suppose that in a quarterback-driven league it should scarcely surprise us to find that the offense begins and mostly ends on Ben's arm. It would be easier on our collective psyches if he was a bit more consistent, but he always gives us a thrilling ride. Here's hoping that the ride is a bit smoother in the playoffs, starting with taming the Bronco(s).

And I hope this doesn't sound like I'm down on Ben. I constantly marvel at what he's able to accomplish under tremendous duress. But the reality is that he hasn't helped the team as much this season as he did last year. Here's hoping that he'll redeem himself with an amazing post-season, culminating in a seventh Lombardi.

Tomorrow I'm going to attempt to tackle the defense, but I don't know that I'll find it much easier than the rest of the league : )

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